In a Brooklyn aquaponic farm, basil grown with tilapia is the future

Verticulture is the New York City version of the 21st century farm


One of the first things you notice about Verticulture, an aquaponic farm built on the top floor of the old Pfizer factory in Brooklyn, is the smell: ammonia and a slight funk of moss. The air is hot and steamy, filled with noise, gnats, and drain flies. Welcome to the New York City version of the 21st century farm.

Verticulture is one of three aquaponic farms in New York City; the other ones are Edenworks and OKO farms. All of them have two things in common: they are located in Brooklyn, and their goal is to bring local and sustainably grown produce to the city. There appears to be a market — by New York state’s estimates, New York City alone has $600 million worth of unmet annual demand for local food.

Verticulture, founded in 2011, first opened on the rooftop of the Metropolitan Exchange Building in downtown Brooklyn. Miles Crettien, Peter Spartos, and Ryan Morningstar, the three co-founders, decided to dismantle it when Hurricane Irene approached. They killed all the tilapia and threw a massive fish taco party.


After raising $22,000 online, including on Indiegogo, the farm reopened in March 2015 in a 450-square-foot room in the old Pfizer factory, a giant manufacturing plant in Bedford-Stuyvesant that was shut down in 2008 and is now the epicenter of food startups. Trays of basil are stacked up 10 feet high and there are two big, black tanks filled with water and grey tilapia. White plastic tubes and pipes are everywhere, noisily pumping the water from the tanks to the trays and from the trays back to the tanks. And that’s how the farm works. Aquaponics uses fish — and their poop — to provide fertilizer to plants, which are grown in water, rather than soil.

Before the water reaches the plants, naturally forming bacteria convert the ammonia in the fish waste into nitrate, basically fertilizer. The plants’ roots suck in the nitrate and then the purified water is pumped back into the fish tank. It’s a close, controlled environment that recycles about 90 percent of the water it uses and requires little monitoring.

The farm is powered by 150 to 180 tilapia and grows Genovese and Thai basil on floating rafts propped up by styrofoam, under incredibly bright fluorescent lights. About 30 to 40 pounds of basil are produced weekly, and then sold to local retailers like Foragers in Chelsea and Dumbo, the Food Coop in Park Slope, and The Green Grape in Clinton Hill, as well as FreshDirect’s offshoot Foodkick. (The tilapia are not sold.) The farm is getting two to three new clients a month, Crettien says, but for now, he and the others aren’t making any money off of it. They all have other jobs and work on the farm at night, on weekends, and days off.

verticulture produces 30 to 40 pounds of basil per week

Verticulture is still running in beta, as a testing ground for making this farming technique a viable alternative for providing fresh produce to New York City. The farm is now experimenting with other herbs, like mint. It’s also testing with blue, red, and white LED lights, which consume less energy than fluorescent lights and make plants grow faster. (For now, the basil is ready for harvest in about a month.) And it’s also experimenting with how much space to leave each individual basil plant on the rafts, so it can increase yields.

The final goal is to make aquaponics a sustainable and profitable way to provide local produce to cities all over the world, says Crettien, who has worked in hydroponics farms and has an MBA in sustainability. "I believe strongly in the ecological design," he says. "We can build this anywhere. We can build it in the desert. We can build it in Antarctica."

The farm is not truly sustainable yet. The lights and water pumps aren’t powered by renewable energy. And the way the tilapia are raised may not appeal to animal welfare activists; the fish never see the sunlight and about 80 of them are confined in a plastic tank filled with 150 gallons of water.


"Would I want to live in a tank with no light?" Crettien says. "Hell no!" But this is what makes the most commercial sense for now, he says. The fish are also fed the highest quality, non-GMO commercial fish food, and if they weren’t doing well, they’d get sick, he says. (Verticulture has an aquarium technician who keeps an eye on the health of the fish.)

I tried the farm’s Genovese basil and, I have to say, it was very sweet. It was also super fresh — definitely fresher than the basil I usually buy at grocery stores. But it’s also expensive. I paid $3.99 for a one-ounce package, and Verticulture’s Crettien says that retailers sell it for up to $5. Crettien says the goal is to eventually expand and hire local people to run the farm; that way, the community gets new jobs and fresh produce. Priced as it is, though, I’m skeptical any aquaponics workers would make enough to eat the basil they grow. It’s a crazy idea, but then so is opening the farm in the first place.

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales.